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LONDON: Saudi Arabia is stepping up efforts to become the vanguard of a UN commitment to develop a sustainable tourism model after the sector’s resilience levels were pushed to breaking point by the pandemic and that grim new warnings about the environmental footprint of tourism have emerged.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on May 6, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb said lessons on tourism’s vulnerability to sudden and unexpected events must be learned from the pandemic – which has cost the sector 62 million jobs worldwide – and that change needs to be made.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the vulnerability of the sector, not only to pandemics but also to the effects of extreme weather conditions, so tackling climate change must be at the heart of building more resilient tourism, and it is not There’s no resilience without sustainability,” he said. mentioned.

“We need to work collaboratively, putting sustainable and resilient tourism at the heart of an inclusive recovery. Only by doing these things together will we ensure a better and more resilient future for the millions of people around the world who depend on tourism.

A partial view shows an ancient Nabataean carved tomb at the Hegra archaeological site near the town of AlUla in northwestern Saudi Arabia. (Picture by

The UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) hailed the Saudi efforts, noting that the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 has already provided the blueprint for a “transformative and deeply ambitious” economic strategy, and could do the same for the country. tourism.

An UNWTO spokesperson told Arab News: “This ambitious plan aims to reshape the social and cultural landscape, accelerating growth through strategic investment, new industries and leadership.

“This is an opportunity to introduce the world to the heritage, culture and hospitality of Saudi Arabia; and achieve climate and sustainability goals. Properly managed, tourism can play a key role in realizing this vision.

Scientists have said CO2 emissions from tourism will increase by 25% by 2030 from 2016 levels, which if left unaddressed could be a bullet for the sector as visitors start to take into account the impact and morality of climate change on their choice of destination.

Signaling the Kingdom’s intention to become the shepherd of sustainability, Al-Khateeb and his Jamaican counterpart, Edmund Bartlett, signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this month to collaborate on the development of sustainable and resilient tourism between the two countries.

Part of the agreement also included a determination not only to adopt the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but also to establish a blueprint that can be rolled out globally for a model of sustainable tourism.

Taif’s rose season attracts visitors from Saudi Arabia and beyond. (A photo by Huda Bashatah)

Although firm details on the master plan have yet to emerge, the UNWTO spokesperson noted that policymakers are “best placed” to play a central role as long as their policies aim to reduce impacts environmental aspects of consumption and production patterns.

“National tourism planning is a well-established practice among national authorities with national tourism policies spanning an average of 10 years and addressing the same thematic areas across all regions,” the spokesperson added.

“Aspects such as human resource development, investment, marketing and promotion, employment, product development and diversification have been taken into account in the policies as they are relevant aspects for economic development sustainable tourism.

Jonathon Day, associate professor and graduate program director at the Marriott School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, applauded the Kingdom’s “ambition and commitment”, believing it could become a leader in sustainability.

“Sustainably developed tourism has the potential to contribute substantially to the sustainability challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the world, and I am sure that through tourism, Saudi Arabia can join leading destinations in sustainable development,” Day told Arab News.

“The Kingdom has the resources to invest in infrastructure to support sustainability goals and knows that tourism that does not embrace sustainability principles can compound sustainability issues. It requires commitment to achieve positive results.

Day is not alone in seeing Saudi Arabia’s financial resources as key to any effort it might make to pave the way for green tourism, with Professor Willy Legrand of the International University of Applied Sciences believing that this would “translate” into talent attraction and policy development. .

AlUla, home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is central to the Kingdom’s tourism ambitions. (Courtesy of AlUla Royal Commission)

“Not only that, the resources enable the country to develop and implement cutting-edge (existing) solutions while being a pipeline to test new solutions to address some of the biggest tourism challenges,” Legrand told Arab News. .

Architect and sustainable tourism consultant Amine Ahlafi said that while Saudi Arabia had only recently opened up to tourism more widely, it was important to remember that it had a rich history of religious tourism, and that was something she could learn from.

Between 2.5 and 9 million pilgrims visit the Kingdom every year, Ahlafi told Arab News, this translates to the use of around 15 million plastic cups to meet the water needs of all those who travel.

“You can of course use technology to recycle all the disposable cups, but sustainable tourism should be about finding ways to raise awareness so we don’t have to rely on technology,” he said.

“As for the development of new tourism, I think they should promote the desert potential of tourism because they can market it as a very interesting place for sustainable tourism – which does not mean that they should reduce the quality.

“We can do luxury combined with sustainability and not in a green way with the design of luxury desert camps that optimize natural resources, sun and wind for energy.”

Ahlafi said a master plan should be based on promoting technology and the habitat you are in. “Technology is the tool, not the solution, the solution is adapting to the environment, not trying to make the environment fit you.”

Legrand said the Kingdom’s ability to achieve its goals would depend on a “transparency statement” in which it would not only state its goals, but communicate the actions taken and the results achieved.

Day said it was also important to construct the plan not as a series of steps that would work for every country, but rather to realize it as a list of questions that all countries could ask themselves.

“Sustainability and sustainable tourism are ‘tough issues,’ which means there is a lot to do and many organizations and parts of government need to work together to achieve common goals,” Day said.

“And while there is a common set of tasks, each destination will have different priorities. So the questions may be the same, but the answers may be different. For example, Saudi Arabia will likely focus more on conservation water than some destinations.

Legrand agreed that the Kingdom’s ability to produce a comprehensive plan would depend on its ability to recognize that there would not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, but rather a series of questions and the inclusion of all stakeholders in the process.

He suggested that questions could include: What are hoteliers’ views on sustainability? Do restaurateurs rely on local agriculture? Are local communities involved? What are the challenges for these different actors? Do destination marketers know?

But he also noted that there were “clear and key topics” that should be addressed in a comprehensive and universalized way, not the least of which is the elephant in the room: long-haul air travel.

“Long-haul travel remains a major challenge on the emissions front and will remain so for years to come, although airlines are making progress in both efficiency and fuel technologies,” he said. declared.

“Transparency at the booking stage is key to making the right decisions about a trip, here Travalyst and its many members are making progress in providing travelers with this information, such as the carbon footprint of certain flight routes, for example.”

Both Day and Legrand agreed that for Saudi Arabia to realize its ambitions as a vanguard in a push towards sustainable tourism, the country should frame its efforts around the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to industry, including “collaboration and cooperation”.

They face many challenges, the main one being to improve citizens’ trust in state institutions.

Stewart C. Hartline